Legislature cuts funding for Healthy Frontiers

Mar 9, 2012

Listen to the story

Five years ago the state embarked on an innovative preventive medicine approach called Healthy Frontiers.  It offered a version of health insurance to low income people who cannot afford it.  The idea was to try and keep people off of Medicaid and out of the emergency room.  But as Wyoming Public Radio’s Bob Beck reports the legislature stripped money from the program essentially killing it.

Bob Beck:  This is how Healthy Frontiers worked.  Those in the pilot program got $500 in a health savings account and they received five checkups, generic drugs and testing.  90 percent of hospital visits were covered.  But conservative members of the legislature were concerned about the state being involved in health care.  Republican Senator Charles Scott of Casper, who worked to develop the program says cutting the program is wrong.

Charles Scott: Frankly the far right doesn’t like it because its government involved in health care and they think we shouldn’t be.  Well, we are involved we have Medicaid and nationally we have Medicare.  You have to be realistic and they aren’t.

Beck:  Scott adds that opponents are shortsighted.

Scott:  If we are faced with the full Medicaid expansion that’s in the national reform and they make us pay our normal share of it, which I suspect they will then what you are looking at is a tax increase.  The people who voted to kill healthy frontiers are voting for a tax increase.

Wendy Curran: It was frustrating.  I never felt that we had the full understanding of what the program had the potential to do.”

Beck:  That’s Wendy Curran who currently oversees Healthy Frontiers for Blue Cross Blue Shield.  She notes that the program got off to a slow start which gave fuel to naysayers.  It took awhile to get regulations drafted, providers on board and of course participants.  But Curran says recent turmoil regarding government’s role in health care makes some even more uneasy than  five years ago.

Curran: That drove a lot of the decision making and discussion that eventually probably led to the end of this program.

 Despite having just 105 participants…Curran says Healthy Frontiers did everything they hoped it would.

Curran : We’ve had success in health status of participants, early diagnosis of disease, better control of chronic disease so they are not ending up in the hospital, better understanding of how participants could be responsible for their own health.

Beck:   Even a skeptic could see it’s merits.  Lovell Representative Elaine Harvey was strongly against the measure when it first came out.

Elaine Harvey: I didn’t think we’d be able to change people’s behavior, but just in the small sampling that we had…I…I was wrong.

But losing the program leads to very real problems for Powell resident Justine Larsen…her job does not provide insurance and she can’t afford it to buy her  own.  She was terrified of health care debt.

Justine Larsen: I had told my family that unless I am bleeding or unconscious there is no going to the doctor and there is certainly not going to the ER.

Beck:  She was admitted to the Healthy Frontiers program last October and it’s a good thing too, because shortly after that she had two major medical problems and recently broke her wrist.  Healthy Frontiers has helped her pay for care.  But now that the program’s money has been cut, Larsen admits she is scared.  She and her husband are looking at high deductible insurance packages that will cost half her salary.  Larsen says the system is doesn’t work for the people who need it.

Larsen: One trip to the hospital, one trip to the ER is going to financially devastate a family that could otherwise be working or otherwise be going about their lives.  I would hope the state would get involved.  It’s very traumatic.

Beck:  But all may not be lost.  Governor Mead’s Health Policy Advisor Elizabeth Hoy says they are trying to keep a version of the program alive.  They were going to retool the program anyway, but they were hoping that an additional year of funding would give them time to do that.  Now they are scrambling.

Elizabeth Hoy: We have 105 people who are enrolled in the program and they’re enrolled in the program because they do not have other sources of any insurance.  So, where we would be able to move those people on short notice is something we are trying to figure out.

Beck:  Among the options they are considering involve state and private partnerships.  Hoy is hopeful, but also says it’s much too early to formally say what will happen next.  For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Bob Beck.